Pope's hat trick was the difference despite Cheltenham's second half rejuvenation but it was a major blow for Mark Yates' Robins this afternoon.
Cheltenham started fairly well in this match but they found themselves 1-0 down amongst a heap of Port Vale pressure courtesy of Tom Pope but the scoreline could have been so much worse had Scott Brown not been playing out of his skin. Cheltenham struck the crossbar in the first half but Vale took an important lead in at the break with them. Cheltenham had the perfect start to life in the second half when Kaid Mohamed equalised after just a few minutes and Paul Benson took the lead moments later but Vale continued to harry and Tom Pope smashed in their own equaliser from another corner. A terrific game between two good sides but Tom Pope's quality shone through and his hat trick re-took the lead and won the game for Port Vale despite Cheltenham's best efforts to grab something from the game.
It was another blow to Cheltenham's automatic promotion bid but focus now had to quickly switch to another battle against Northampton on Monday.
Big games rarely came bigger than this in League Two with Cheltenham Town taking on Port Vale at Vale Park - two teams vying for the chance to play in League One next season. Mark Yates' Robins had just one change from last weekend's 0-0 draw at Barnet with Jason Taylor replacing Sam Deering in midfield. New signing Jack Deaman didn't make the bench but did make the journey along with Bagsan Graham and Joe Hanks to support his team-mates. Port Vale were looking to re-find the spark that got them into the automatic positions and a dominating strike force of Tom Pope and Lee Hughes was the clear danger.
There really was a sense of intrigue about this game with the 90 minutes a real key promotion battle for both teams and it was Vale who went on the attack first when Lee Hughes forced a corner but Brown was able to gobble the ball up after a tame set piece. It may have been early in the game but there were already some hard tackles going in courtesy of Taylor and Penn but Cheltenham almost found a goal when Russ Penn struck a 20 yard effort at Chris Neal only for the Vale goalkeeper to drop the ball and reclaim it before Mohamed could pounce. The threat of Port Vale's attackers was always going to be a problem in this match and Lee Hughes actually had the ball in the back of the net on 12 minutes with a headed effort from McCombe's cross but the flag had been shown by the linesman for offside. The frontman was then subbed off with a hamstring injury and was replaced by Ben Williamson.
Port Vale were looking dangerous and a Jennison Myrie-Williams corner provided the perfect opportunity for League Two's player of the year Tom Pope to stoop low and put his side ahead. It was a blow for Cheltenham and they were facing an uphill climb to get a win from this match. It could have been so much worse for Cheltenham had it not been for Brown with a game of pinball ricocheting in the area before the goalkeeper making an important save at Ben Williamson's feet. He was needed again soon after to make a double save at his post from Rob Taylor. Port Vale were rampant and Cheltenham struggling.
Cheltenham did settle down despite up against the ropes and they had another shot on target when Kaid Mohamed fired into the gloves of Neal after Benson did well to head a cross down into his path. Jermaine McGlashan also had a shooting chance from the edge of the area but it was wasted with the ball flying over the bar. It was much more positive from Cheltenham Town but still they couldn't find a way through. It was much better from Cheltenham but a counter attack from Port Vale forced Brown into making another good save at the feet of the dangerous Myrie-Williams to deny the hosts a second goal. Cheltenham, from nothing, then had the opportunity they craved when Billy Jones' cross found Benson and his header cannoned back off the bar much to the relief of Vale. A freekick effort from Marlon Pack and a yellow card for Billy Jones finished the first half of leaving the Robins with plenty to think about.
Half Time: Port Vale FC 1-0 Cheltenham Town
Mark Yates moved quickly to make changes at half time with Keith Lowe and Byron Harrison replacing yellow carded Billy Jones and Jason Taylor. Brave decisions can often be rewarded and the changes at half time were when Michael Hector's long ball found Byron Harrison who broke away from Jones before firing in a low shot which was saved by Neal but the ball could only fall loose to Mohamed who was in on the rebound and the winger brought Cheltenham level.
Cheltenham had their tails up and the away stand erupted when Paul Benson put them ahead on 54 minutes. Kaid Mohamed's found the head of Hector and Paul Benson was on hand to tap in from close range before diving in the snow to celebrate. It was the perfect start to the second half for Cheltenham but Port Vale weren't about to roll over. Minutes later Keith Lowe was forced to give away a corner and Myrie-Williams' set piece found Tom Pope on the far side of the area and the striker hammered home a shot to pull level. You could not take your eyes off this game.
Both teams were going for this and Cheltenham were so close to taking the lead again when Marlon Pack played a superb ball through to Byron Harrison and the striker skipped past the goalkeeper only to see his eventual shot cleared off the line by McCombe. It was end to end stuff and a great advert for League Two but Louis Dodds could have had one of the goals of the game but his half volley sailed just wide of goal. Byron Harrison was making a real difference to Cheltenham by catching the Port Vale back line out time and time again but he was still trying to find his way through on goal to snatch a lead. Both teams were seemingly taking turns on the attack and Tom Pope could have had another chance on goal had Steve Elliott's brave low header forced a corner. The big striker eventually got his way however when Myrie-Williams lofted a ball over into the path of the rampaging Pope who burst past Hector and chipped the ball over Brown for 3-2 to restore Vale's lead.
Cheltenham were down again and facing defeat unless they could find a third in this game. Jermaine McGlashan fired over the bar on 77 minutes and Keith Lowe had an ambitious effort fly just wide on 79 minutes. The Robins pushed and pushed before Mark Yates brought Sam Deering on for Kaid Mohamed. Efforts from Steve Elliott and Russ Penn threatened the Vale goal but the hosts remained secure as the minutes ticked by with Cheltenham needing to pull something out of the hat.
The Robins huffed and puffed but could not find a way through the Valiants defence. A gutting blow to Cheltenham's automatic promotion hopes.
Full Time: Port Vale FC 3-2 Cheltenham Town
Port Vale FC (4-4-2): Neal (GK); Yates, McCombe (C), Chilvers, Jones; Myrie-Williams, Griffith, Dodds, Taylor (Andrew 82); Pope, Hughes (Williamson 13)
Subs not used: Johnson (GK), Lloyd, Duffy, Purse, Shuker
Cheltenham Town FC (4-2-3-1): Brown (GK); Jombati, Hector, Elliott, Jones (Lowe 46); Pack, Taylor (Harrison 46); McGlashan, Penn, Mohamed (Deering 83); Benson
Subs not used: Roberts (GK), Carter, Harrad, Duffy
Referee: Mr. Scott Mathieson
Attendance: 5,867 (344 from Cheltenham)
Robins' Star Man: Scott Brown - He may have conceded three but he also kept Cheltenham in this game. Great goalkeeping at times.